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S&A Weighs In: On The Aftermath of '12 Years A Slave' & 'Important Black Film Fatigue'

Shadow and Act By Jana Sante | Shadow and Act October 28, 2013 at 10:14AM

S&A Weighs In: On The Aftermath of '12 Years A Slave' & 'Important Black Film Fatigue'
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12 Years A Slave

Contributors: Tambay. Ms Woo. Sergio. Jana. 

One week and counting since the US theatrical release of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and the wave of shock and awe (from audiences and critics alike) flows on.  You may recall the heated responses to a recent interview on S&A - 12 Minutes w/ Steve McQueen - On '12 Years A Slave,' His 'Brand,' His 'Blackness' & More.’ 


The questions prevail: on how ‘Blackness’ as a cinematic projection seems an endlessly conflicting public space; for whom this current revival of slavery-as-cinema is ultimately intended; which directorial lens to entrust with negotiating the complexities of depicting Black enslavement and conversely, the subtext of acceptable Black liberation; why on-screen depictions of Blackness lean overwhelmingly (and exhaustingly) toward marketable projections of trauma and woe. 

How Black audiences ‘engage’ remains a polarizingly cyclical debate among the varied consumers and cultural custodians of ‘Black cinema.’ In the transcript below, four S&A writers weigh in, in what began as an intentionally private conversation about… well, the kind of things that when under ‘the gaze,’ often go unpublished. 

[Editors note: Our collective apologies to those who’ve not yet seen the films mentioned – this does contain spoilers.]

JANA SANTE/JS: In case this hadn't infiltrated your cinematic radar…’The Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue’ (http://prospect.org/article/seven-stages-important-black-film-fatigue)

MS WOO/MW: Hah! I think I did "annoyance, anger, vulnerability, and acceptance" in the space of 12 hours of watching 12 Years...

JS: How did you conclude on it?

MW:  On the article? I go through moments of black film fatigue. It's actually part of the reason I pulled away from writing for S&A. I actually like watching movies. I needed to get back to watching movies because they appeal to me, not just because I feel obliged to see them... only to be sorely disappointed.

I'm not about to see every film that has black people in it - even if it made it into the BFI LFF (British Film Institute’s London Film Festival). Films about black urban ‘yoots’...? Pass. Films about urban gangs...? Pass. Black rom-coms...? Pass. Basically, I'm not about to see a generic, paint by numbers film that wouldn't normally appeal to me just because you've populated it with black folks. Inane is inane in any colour.

TAMBAY OBENSON/TO: I'll admit that the article title and accompanying headline photo, didn't win me over. I recall shaking my head and sighing at first glance.

"12 Years A Slave" has inspired so many articles, and I've read a few of them, and think I'm probably fatigued. But I'm sure I can read one more. Just one though.

I'm already looking to 2014, wondering what the one contentious "black film" will be. Oh yeah, how could I forget - the Nina Simone movie with Zoe Saldana. Hah! Although, whatever Spike Lee is cooking up in "Da Blood Of Jesus," I'm almost certain will inspire more than a few debates, based on that title alone, and his description.

But like Wendy, I actually miss being able to watch films (and read novels) just for pleasure. Oddly enough, I watch far fewer films these days than I did before S&A.

JS: So my good people, the (terrifying) consensus I'm coming away with is that writing about the cinema of Blackness may very well drain you of the will to watch the cinema of Blackness?

As the newest newbie on the S&A flex, the points are duly noted.

Yet as weary as weary may be, one solid week after seeing that McQueen film, the subtext of what it achieved is intensifying with every recollection. I reckon he may have actually gotten it as right as right can be in Hollywood. So Tambay, perhaps forgive him on the 'time ellipsis' factor? Alas.

MW: Re 12 Years, like I said in response to one of your  posts, Jana, I really think I read too much about the film before seeing it - ALWAYS a bad move on my part, so don't know why I did it as I watched some of it knowing what was coming and thus being somewhat underwhelmed by it all.

What DID get to me was Patsey's story. Really, people mentioned how great Lupita was in the role, but I don't really recall reading anything that prepared me for the level of intense feeling I had watching her story unfold. Seriously, the dynamic between men and women in the antebellum era is always sidelined in favour of the more obvious black and white dynamic. And the dynamic between black women and white women... well, like I mentioned before somewhere, I couldn't help but leave the screening feeling overwhelmed by the horrific drama that played out between the Epps’ and their slave Patsey.

That for her whole life, someone like Patsey had the protection of absolutely nobody just left me feeling gutted. Granted, slavery wasn't a picnic for any black person, male or female, but I don't think I've ever seen it so vividly, unflinchingly and non-melodramatically laid out as this before. And nobody seemed to make much of it in all the write-ups I read before seeing the film. How is that?

I'd already read about the most horrifying scenes in the film, so I was kind of almost numb to them (self defence mechanism kicked in, maybe) - though the hanging scene still left me more than a little uncomfortable. However, the most emotionally destroying scene for me is when, after hugging her goodbye, Platt/Solomon gets on the carriage, turns away from the plantation and looks ahead to his freedom while, blurred in the receding background, Patsey collapses - out of grief, shock... That was the short-breathed snot and tears moment for me. While Solomon was reacquainting himself with his family, my heart was fractured into tiny pieces for Patsey.

McQueen certainly took it all the way on a level that doesn't/won't get talked about in so many of the glowing reviews.

As Tambay said in a conversation we had before, white guilt came out in droves for this film. I, however, would love to read a review from a white feminist. If any of you come across one of those, let me know.

SERGIO MIMS/SM: I still like the film but I wasn't blown away by it. It's not like the greatest thing ever made. There are some powerful scenes but I find McQueen’s "cool, distant" approach which worked so well for Shame and Hunger is not exactly the right approach for this film. He should have been more "in your face" than the distant "Hmmm that's rather interesting" approach. All this talk about the film being so violent - with the exception of the whipping scene, not even remotely. I suspect what people are really reacting to is how black people are treated by white people in the film. As if they're saying "Oh my we did THAT? Oh dear That's not like us."

Yes Django is far more violent and its depictions of slavery are way more brutal. Then again 12 Years ain't no Mandingo for sure.

MS: Sergio, not sure I needed it to be more "in your face" but I certainly did wonder which bit some people were walking out from.

I do wonder what white people were expecting from a McQueen film about slavery.

Like you said, it wasn't any more violent than Django... it's just Django was more Hollywood violence, I guess... so it didn't seem "real" enough for audiences on a visceral level.

Guilt vs. denial…discuss.

SM: Denial. I dare say more black people than white people. How many times I've heard someone say that they didn't want to see 12 Years. "Oh why must there be another slave movie?" Like how many slave movies have there been compared to how many lame black rom-coms? No one is complaining about too many rom-coms. Even Morgan Freeman was quoted recently saying that he didn't want to see 12 Years. I was going to post something about it but then figured what's the point? The psychological scars are still too deep.

JS: So it seems the trouble with slavery as a marketable cinematic genre (whether approached by black or white male writer/ director) would appear to be the deliberate gender bias; which with very few notable exceptions (Gerima’s Sankofa/ Demme/Winfrey’s Beloved), has necessarily been told and sold to audiences principally as a discourse on masculinity that strategically negates the unnerving intensities of sexual tortures which principally befell enslaved black women?

Ms Woo, everything you said about Patsey is my heightened cause to appreciate writer John Ridley and McQueen's endeavour in 12 Years. Yes, it is the narrative of Solomon, but that it was woven so intrinsically into the psychological trauma of Patsey and by contrast Alfre Woodard's 'Mistress Shaw'- that to me was the point of this conflicting viewing experience.

Been trying to sum up McQueen's mission here- or rather the mission he won't speak of to press, for obvious fear of being 'relegated' to that precariously inescapable category of 'Black artist.' Tricky mission to find words for that don't pander to the 'White gaze' but in many ways I reckon McQueen just offered up a palatably corrective lesson to the canon of White film making. This canon of Whiteness and its audience (both Black and White) still aren't yet quite ready to reconcile the narrative of  a slave named Patsey as a solo endeavour from the centralised battleground of cinematic masculinity - ergo the audience abandonment of Toni & Oprah's Beloved? (And I'm still trying to find words for that rejection too).

On 'guilt vs denial' - well it's a delicate pact. And thus far, if McQueen's glowing reception illuminates anything, it is that the pact continues to be best negotiated (by men) when the sexual assault of Black women by White men isn't too implicitly central to the marketing plan.

SM: Well you see that's the thing. I guess I'm in the minority but I felt that Patsey wasn't given enough dimension for me. I wanted to know more about her, who the person was instead of basically being a subject of dehumanization. We learned all about Northup's background but nothing about her.

JS:…exactly Sergio. Yet even with that limited exposition, McQueen's perspective still goes further than any previous Hollywood slavery epic had dared to probe...and all without ever expressly having to declare that 12 Years A Slave is in fact a film about the abject sufferings and non-emancipation of a Black woman named Patsey.

MS: Jana, I guess one step at a time. Let's be honest, Demme's/Morrison's Beloved is just too weird to contemplate for most. The return of the child who had its brains bashed against a rock in order to escape slavery...? Um... not one to be washed down with a large diet coke and popcorn combo, really is it? - Unless it was done as comedy. Actually, if it had been sold as a horror story, Beloved would have probably been much better received, even with slavery as a backdrop.

 Also, the horrors of slavery being escaped (especially in the film, if I recall) weren't exactly made graphically obvious, which just makes the action of killing one's child in such a manner seem a bit like overkill (I'm still amazed that there are people who think slavery can't have been all that bad - hence the reaction to McQueen's film, I guess).

So yeah, I'm amazed that I wasn't prepared for Patsey's story despite all I read about the film before hand, and even more surprised (or p*ssed off) that nobody actually did much to warn me about how traumatising I might find it. Then again, beyond praising their performances, I guess Paulson, Woodard and Nyong'o's roles weren't really examined much by most reviewers. Now, as then, women (regardless of colour) were really just props and prizes in the infernal d*ck-swinging competition.

So yeah, for McQueen to have slipped Patsey's story in there (don't know how well highlighted it was in the book)... with such blatant and horrifying impact, was both a shock and and pleasant (well, uncomfortably welcome, as opposed to pleasant) surprise. So kudos for him.

I hear they pretty much stuck to the narrative of the book (obviously they must have left some things out) so I'm guessing he could only give us as much as they knew about Patsey. Solomon started off free and returned, thankfully, to that state (albeit scarred for the rest of his life).

Patsey, however... Well, I'm guessing her tale would be called "My Whole Life a Slave" assuming that she was born into slavery, of course. In one scene, Epps/Fassbender has this beautiful little dark-skinned slave girl that he carries around and treats like a precious doll - much hugging, hand holding, stroking, carrying... promising treats of candy. I'd imagine that, at its best, that was Patsey's childhood. For a child like that, the best they could have hoped for was to end up like Mistress Shaw (Woodard's character). At worst... we get Patsey's life. On a good day she has a spare moment to make corn dolls like a care-free child. On a bad day, she gets raped by her master and then gets a decanter thrown at her head while forced to dance for his midnight entertainment.

McQueen gave me more than enough to glean Patsey's life and background. Really, what more could he have said that wasn't already implied, without veering from the source?

And yes, Sergio. I'm sick to death of people who don't want to see yet another film about slavery... I'm in no doubt that some of these same people actually ran to be first in the queue to see Django... Because it was a about a black man killing white people!

So…The Help: too subservient and about a bunch of women. The Butler: too subservient. Django: black superhero who, for most of the film, actually plays second fiddle to the white character who kills the superhero's nemesis... thereby making the second highest profile negro in the film his main target of revenge). 12 Years: ANOTHER slave movie?!!

JS: My dear Ms Woo...everything you said above. Yes. Precisely. Thank you.  

Now in the interests of serving cinematic vocation, lest not we collectively archive this conversation and submit it to the S&A universe? It would seem to be the right thing to do. And I've not read any roundtable postmortem on this film yet (with the exception of that pre-release NY Times discussion with Nelson George).

So what say you, folks? Publish this no-holds barred, bullsh*t-free dissection of McQueen's grand opus in 'The Year Of The Slavery Film' (as one writer at The Daily Beast declared it at the dawn of the season)? (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03/15/how-2013-became-the-year-of-the-slavery-film.html )

Methinks it'd at least make for a worthy gesture of ‘Important Black Film Fatigue’ alleviation.

MW: Ooh, Jana...Then again...It might need to be edited a bit?

TO: Hah! "With editing" they say. Come on guys! No filter, as the youth say these days. But seriously, I think I gave the impression that I DID NOT like the film, which isn't true. It's just not the film I expected to see, given how much I'd read and heard about how incredible and affecting it was. I don't think Steve McQueen could make a bad film even if he wanted to. But I just think that, as what you guys seem to be confirming for me, it's being graded on a curve. A mainstream film about slavery actually dared to show "truth" about slavery without any sensationalizing or trivializing of the subject? Stop the presses! The fact that this is only now just happening in 2013 (the TV miniseries "Roots" aside, although that was 40 years ago or so), says a lot. And I just don't think that praise for any film at this point, should include consideration for being "the first to dare..." I'm just looking at it as I would any other film. I know, I know, some would argue that it's just not "any other film."

And I did have a lot more questions for McQueen. We just got stuck on the "time" issue during the convo, and whatever tension there was just seemed to spill over into the next 2 questions.

I read the book and the script before seeing the film, so maybe that was also of some influence when I did eventually see it. And yes, in response to whether the film matches the book, it does for the most part. We don't really get Patsey's full background story. I think we're just to fill in the blanks. But keep in mind that, this is after all, Solomon's story. At least, it's supposed to be. We see and hear everything through him, so he acts like a griot in some way. And, to be frank, he's not the most interesting character in the book, and the film as well. I left the theater really curious about Patsey's story. Like what happened before Solomon entered her life, and what happened after he left. A film about Patsey would likely be even more brutal to watch. But I love how we are allowed to see a single moment of what seems like a rare peace and even joy for her, when she's sitting in the grass, creating little doll-like figures (as I recall). I'd also like to see a film telling Ms Shaw's story (Alfre Woodard). I'd like to see the journey that eventually ended up creating the character we see in the film. Even Epps' story could be interesting. We get glimpses of these lives that leave one wanting to know more about them. But there's only so much that can be packed into 2 1/2 hours. And - something I've said previously - I hope this isn't the end to slave movies, and is instead the beginning of a "new wave" that uncovers as many other stories as possible.

At the end of the novel, Solomon himself said that (I'm paraphrasing) his story is just one of many, and the suffering he endured in captivity was tame compared to others he'd witnessed (and not witnessed). So even he was aware, at the time, that there are indeed so many more stories to tell, and he's lucky to have not only regained his freedom and reunite with his family, he's also lucky he was actually able to live to tell his story and see it published.

But I'm ok with publishing this, unless Sergio has any objections.

MW: On the surface, Mistress Shaw's story seemed like the only possible happy ending for a black female slave. However, looking at Adepero Oduye's character (Eliza), I think she found "favour" with her master, and even had a child for him, and yet didn't escape the auction block (along with both her children) once he died.

So I wonder if Mistress Shaw was emancipated/free. If not, then I guess her fate was really just as frail as any other slave in the southern colonies, and hanging on the thread of her master's whim or life-span.

Yep, there are certainly many more slave stories that could be told. Woe betide the one(s) who set out to tell the tales though...


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